Warner Bros. Pictures
A man washes up unconscious on a foreign beach. He is awakened by armed guards, and, delirious, speaks a name to them. The guards take him to a palatial home where he meets the bearer of that name, a man grown rich and wrinkled with the passage of years. The old man asks him, "Are you here to kill me?"
This might easily have been the opening of an austere, hypnotic noir, Raymond Chandler by way of Paul Bowles. Instead, it is the opening of the summer's most mind-bending action entertainment, Christopher Nolan's Inception. And if the early reviews are any indication, I may be very nearly alone in my disappointment.
First, the good news, of which there is plenty. Inception, Nolan's first picture since The Dark Knight put him in the billion-dollar-movie club, is a sharp and intricate diversion, and easily the summer's best blockbuster to date. (Yes, this may accurately be deemed faint praise; no, it's not intended as damnation.) Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dom Cobb, who may sound like a salad but has the look and disposition of a lean slice of beef. Cobb is a thief of the subconscious, the best in the world at the art of "extraction," or breaking and entering the dreams of the powerful in order to purloin their secrets.
His first target in the film is Saito (Ken Watanabe), an energy industrialist whose competitors would like to get a look under his hood. Though the mission fails, Saito is impressed enough by Cobb's effort that he offers to forgive the trespass—provided, of course, that Cobb perform him a service in return. What Saito demands, however, is a more delicate operation than the psychic burglary in which Cobb typically specializes: rather than pilfer an idea from the subconscious of his corporate adversary, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), Saito contracts Cobb to implant one. (Hence, "inception.")
Befitting any proper heist movie, Cobb's mission begins with the assembly of a team. (Lest we be caught unprepared, Saito commands, "Assemble a team.") Cobb dutifully rounds up Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the right-hand man; Eames (Tom Hardy), the "forger," able to impersonate the dreamer's trusted friends and allies; Ariadne (Ellen Page), the architecture student tasked with designing the dreamscapes in which the operation will take place; and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), the sedative specialist responsible for making sure no one wakes up before the mission is complete. The job itself is to take place on three levels of escalating subliminality: a dream within a dream within a dream, each meticulously designed to lower their subject's resistance to the suggestion they seek to embed.
The requisite complications ensue. Among them is the belated discovery that Fischer's subconscious has been "militarized"—that is, trained to repel psychic invasion—with the upshot that Cobb et al. spend the latter half of the film being shot at by dreamworld security. (Envision The Matrix's Agent Smith, minus the sneer and sunglasses.) Worse, the team is haunted, with intensifying animosity, by Cobb's dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose guilt-ridden memory (backstory alert!) he cannot—and perhaps does not wish to—leave behind.